Horatio Myer & Co

Horatio Myer (1850-1816)
Horatio Myer (1850-1816)

On 1st November 1876 Horatio Myer (1850-1816) set up business in Vauxhall Walk, London producing iron bedsteads, brass bedsteads, iron cots and bedchairs. Horatio was the son of Abraham Myer of Cheltenham, a first generation settler from the Rhineland. Abraham set up business in Hereford as a pawnbroker, which developed into a jewellery, silversmith, watchmaker and clothing establishment. Abraham naturalised as a British citizen and even became a local town councillor!

At age nineteen Horatio entered the wool trade but by the time he was twenty-six he had moved to London to set up his own business. Why he decided on bedstead making is not clear but once he had his choice of a London base was for good sound commercial reasons. At the time Birmingham was the bedstead making capital of the UK but the biggest market was in the rapidly expanding London and the South East. So locating in London with its good road and rail connections saved on expensive transport costs.

Iron bedsteads had been made in Broad Street (now Black Prince Road) by John Thomas Butler and Joseph Smith till they sold their business to Arthur Smith in June 1874. Arthur Smith then moved the business the short distance to the Vauxhall Walk premises on Lady Day 1875 but sold it to Horatio on 1st November 1876. The Company name and the original name "Surrey Ironworks" still remains in mosaic on the outside of the main factory building.

(Top row) Myer's mattress making in 1964, The saw mill,
(Centre)The Foundry with bedstead jig,
(Bottom row)The Mattress Shop in earlier times, Delivery vans at Vauxhall Walk

It's probable that Horatio borrowed to raise the initial purchase price and working capital as the 1885 accounts show loans from his brother Grenville (who was running the family jewellery business), a �1000 from Charles Samuel and �6000 from his father in law Henry Joseph. The profits were shared equally between Horatio, Grenville and Henry. The family business became a limited company in 1901 with the family holding all the shares.

Apart from iron bedsteads the company also made brass ones and it seems anything else that brought in a profit including dumb-bells, scale weights, drainpipes, guttering, security grills and 'corset spirals'. Never the less Horatio managed to get involved with a corn and forage merchants, wine merchants and the Crown Iron Foundry in Peckham as well as becoming MP for North Vauxhall in 1906.

In 1911 a subsidiary company 'The Metal Trades Auxiliary Supply Co. Ltd' was set up in Bow to circumvent a price fixing group call the Metal Bedstead Association and various restrictive trade agreements between the Association and a trade union. Myers became a staunch opponent of the Association. The Bow company made brass and other bed components as well as photographic accessories, non-spill oil lamps and aeroplane parts till it closed in 1924.

A 1881 'French' Style Myer's bedstead
A 1881 'French' Style Myer's bedstead

Historically the joints of metal bedsteads had been formed in individual, single use, sand moulds by traditional casting techniques but technological advances around 1840 meant that reusable metal moulds revolutionised production techniques. The individual tubes making up the bed head or foot were now clamped upside down into a solidly made jig by the reusable moulds, then white hot molten casting metal was poured into the moulds (see foundry photo). After setting the now solid bed head was released from the moulds and cleaned up. Having been made upside down the 'pip' left by the filling hole was on the underside of the joint so less noticeable to the customer. The joints holding the bedsides to the bed head and foot uprights were often made of cast iron dovetail joins. At Vauxhall the mornings in the foundry were taken up trimming and cleaning the previous days work and the afternoons with the moulding process.

The mattress platform in the early beds was often simply made from metal lathes set out in various patterns. Around the turn of the century the metal lathes were replaced by various sprung wire mesh platforms often with arrangements to keep the mesh taught. The first mattress of "woven wire" was developed and added to the range in 1894.

Wooden framed beds were not made by Myer's till 1920. The move to wood was partly as result of retailers joining together to buy cheaper from continental manufacturers and partly because of changing public taste. Over the years the company introduced many technological improvements to bed springing and mattresses. To utilise waste wood from the bed making they set up an occasional furniture department making hallstands, coffee tables etc. in 1932, and an upholstery department the next year making bed-settees.

The factory suffered a bad fire in the bedding department in 1936 but it happened in the evening and no one was hurt. During the war the factory suffered bomb damage, ruling out use of much of the top floor, but escaped direct hits from the V1s and V2s. During WW2 the company suffered with very restricted and rationed supplies of raw materials and spare parts, large numbers of staff seconded to military and other war duties and government price freezes. Emergency furniture regulations came into force in 1941 and Utility furniture was introduced 1st January 1943 till the scheme ended in June 1948.

The site of the Vauxhall Walk Myers Factory
The site of the Vauxhall Walk Myers Factory.
"Surrey Ironworks", "Horatio Myer & Co Ltd", "Bedstead Manufacturers"

The company had 19 employees in 1877 (turnover c�6100), 84 in 1906 (turnover �50,398) rising to 224 in 1914 (turnover c�106,600). Naturally WW1 cause a dip in staffing levels to about 100 and post war recovery was slow, numbers rising to 270 by 1929. Myers bought their first motor delivery van in 1920 and slowly phased out horse drawn vehicles over the next 11 years. This long change over possibly reflects hard economic times both nationally (the General Strike was in 1926) and for the company in particular. But the metal bedstead business was in decline and numbers dropped to 220 in 1937 and in early 1943 only 75 people worked in the business. Post WW2 the business and staff numbers rose to 200 in 1949, 300 in 1954, 500 in 1958 rising to more than 800 in 1968.

H.M & Co was the official name of the company for the first 75 years of trading. Only since they started advertising to the public in 1950 did the word "Myer's" become the company name. The curved plywood headboards introduced in 1951 were also used to make coffee tables both lines proved very popular. In 1961 Myer's introduced the 'Tension-Top' mattress to the UK which did away with the need for tuffed-buttons so giving mattresses a smooth rather than the dimpled surface of traditional mattresses. The following year polyurethane foam was first used in the Premium range.

In 1962 a new 45,000 sq.ft. factory in Huntingdon (Cambridgeshire) was set up and started production using woodwork and some metal parts from the Vauxhall factories. Seventy workers volunteered and moved from London to Huntingdon to staff the new factory which initial could turn out 750 beds a week mainly for the East and North East UK market. The Huntingdon site was 10 acres so had room for future expansion which was quickly needed as a new line of quilted mattresses were introduced in 1965 and these were made in the first extension to the original Huntingdon Factory.

In 1954 factory space at Vauxhall was tight and all metal production was moved to a newly acquired factory in Deacon Street, Elephant and Castle. The company also had premises in Salamanca Street from 1958-1982. Metal production moved back to Vauxhall, on the other side of the road to the main factory, in 1970 when Deacon Street site was compulsorily purchased. Myers finally left Vauxhall for Huntingdon in 1982.

The above information was kindly supplied by Myer's Comfortable Beds.

My Time at Horatio Myer & Co Ltd
by Geoff Boxell

I joined the above company in January 1965 as a Production Clerk and left in May 1969 in order to emigrate to New Zealand. I liked the place from the time I went for my interview. It had a warm feel to it and an interesting smell. The warmth came from the boilers that ran flat out all year generating steam and compressed air using coal and lots of scrap wood from the Company's sawmill. The smell came from the exotic mix of the various materials used to make the beds.

The Company now operates from its custom built factory in Huntingdon. When I joined them the Huntingdon factory was a reasonably new site and the Vauxhall factory the main site. Each day there was a lorry bringing down and taking back goods and manufactured products between the two sites. The colloquial name for the lorry was 'The Huntingdon Flyer'.

When I started work at Myers, its main factory was in Vauxhall Walk, and opposite part of the old Vauxhall Car factory. About 500 metres away Myers had a sawmill under the railway arches in Salamanca Street (known just as 'Salamanca'), with the sales office next to it on the same street. There was also a remote site at The Elephant and Castle where the divans were sprung by a crew of quite young lads. Inevitably when going there one said that you were: 'Goin' up the elephant's arse 'ole'. An additional property was the Chapel, a small stone and flint building next door to the main factory used for storage, which when first acquired, smelt strongly of rat's and they proved to be an on and off problem, which meant we soon learnt only to store wire and mattress springs there.

Vauxhall car works ground floor was where the air compressor was and also the assembly shop and spray booths for headboards, tables and small furniture. The Vauxhall car site had a second storey which housed the R&D and repair shops. Later the second floor was expanded over the whole site and R&D took over the space. Eventually the show room was in that area too. The second floor also housed the office canteen. This only opened at lunch time, tea spells were spent with the factory workers. Apart from its speciality of egg & chips, the office canteen sold the same meals that were available for the factory workers. One of the ladies who worked there had a huge goitre on her neck, then one day, she hadn't. She didn't mention she was going into hospital to have it removed, so no one mentioned its disappearance to her either.

The whole of the main site was a rabbit warren and although from the street Vauxhall Walk looked a compact factory, it actually consisted of two main blocks, front and back connected by iron staircases with levels that didn't quite match. I will try and give a description of what was where, but the truth is, things were always changing and it is many years since I last set foot in the place, so I am open to correction. One big confession I must make is that I can't for the life of me place where the mattress and divan felt was cut: I can see the machines and the room, but its location escapes me.

The ground floor of Vauxhall Walk was for storage of cotton felt, woollen felt, coir pads rolls of wire and bought in mattress springs (used in the Grandee range). There was also a loading dock used by lorries unloading goods and the Service Car, which was a van that delivered and collected damaged or faulty goods within the London area.

Further up was the entrance where the factory workers clocked in and the firewood wood and heavy goods were delivered. The staff were always scrutinised as they went in and out by the security man, 'Jock' Hughes, who confided to me that he was in fact an Englishman from the borders, but that he had given up trying to educate the 'Southern Jessies'. During the winter the poor of the parish were allowed to come and scavenge fire wood from the pallets outside the boiler room.

The next floor up, on the left wing, was more storage and for a while the repair shop was shoved into some spare floor space. On the main frontage there were the office staff toilets, the First Aid centre, complete with a sexy Scots nurse and, until 1966 or 67, the show room and the Engineer's shop. After they were both moved the front of the old engineer's workshop housed a machine that quilted mattresses. It was bought with much fanfair from America following a trip there by one of the Directors. The design was ok, but the tracking was made from muck metal and within a year it ran on its own Myer's tracks made from decent British steel. There were always other problems with it and its two stalwart operators were frequently seen to be either huddled over its internals softly swearing, or standing outside awaiting the arrival of the sewing machine mechanic.

The rear of the old engineers shop became the Bedding Office. The new manager, Oscar Arnold, had a large section of the office for himself with the rest of us crammed up. There was a sliding window in his office whereby he could talk to us if he needed anything. We thought it looked like the ticket booth from a railway station and on one occasion Geoff Wright of Buying and myself did it up like one, though I don't think that Oscar was too amused.

Oscar's 2IC was Brian Gibbons. He was in his mid twenties and considered himself to be far more worldly and mature than the rest of us who were in our late teens or early twenties. Phil Tibbets was a Production Chaser as was Alberto Viscardi who, despite his name, was a Londoner. I had started as a Production Clerk and had done my share of production chasing, but for the last two years before emigrating to New Zealand, I had run the repair shops.

Next door to the Bedding Office, through two great iron fire doors lay the Buying Office in what had been the show room. My best mate Geoff worked there as did Bert Hales the bedding buyer and Ester. There was another buyer, who looked after the sawmill side whose first name was Peter, and an overall manager, whose name escapes me. Anne Sibley, a lass with black bouffant hair worked there too, though I am not sure in what role. The time and motion staff, much hated by the workers, had a small office partitioned off at the back.

Geoff and I kept guppy fish. We had one tank in the Bedding Office and another in the space between the fire doors. We used to fence some lunch times, using foils made for us by the engineers from mattress edge wires. There was also a card school that ran at lunchtime playing either Bridge or Pontoon.

Normally the doors between the two offices were kept open, but at lunchtimes they were supposed to be closed for fire reasons. On one memorable occasion we had the doors shut. A small hand came round the doors on the Bedding side, fumbling to get it open. 'And whose delicate little hand is that?' I piped, thinking that it was Ester, only to find that it in fact belonged to Mr Alan Myer, one of the Directors.

The third storey was storage and manufacturing for the mattress edging. Rolls of tick were sawn into smaller lengthen rolls which were then run through eyeleting machines. Anyone and everything there was covered in fluff of all sorts of colours. The top storey was where Ben the foreman oversaw his irascible team of springers and mattress makers. The noise was overwhelming and no one went up there unless they had to. This part of the factory was the only section to constantly run a night shift.

The ground floor of the right wing of the frontage had at one time been the stables for Myer's horses, and the securing rings for the horses still adorned the outside wall. By the time I left it was the site for the combined repair shop and the manufacturing of the 'twin divans' which were basically a tall mattress on a wood plinth made to a single mattress size and that could be coupled together to make a double divan that provided different weight support for the sleepers (the springing could be light, medium or heavy thus providing unique combinations). Again there were stout iron fire doors between this area and the ground floor of the building that sat behind the frontage building and between the two wings.

The rear of this middle building provided storage for manufactured mattress that were either awaiting loading or part of the bulk spare stock. At the far end was the loading bay with the manager's and foreman's office up a flight of stairs. That office had a large amount of glass so that the staff could see what was going on along the dock. The manager was a Welshman called Glynn and he needed eyes in the back of his head given the people who worked for him. There were many fiddles, though the most obvious, and stupid, was stealing beds to order to the people who lived in the flats at the back. The trick was to deliver them when the loader was supposedly loading lorries parked outside the dock, and thus out of sight of the office. One loader got caught when Glynn noticed a Golden Anniversary mattress walk itself along a second floor balcony of the flats in full view of his office. The stolen goods trade went both ways and a foreman at the time got sacked after the police picked him up for selling stolen spirits at Myers.

On the ground floor, alongside the old stables, there was a chute down which came the finished mattresses. A team of quality checkers, often mattress makers suffering short term injuries, gave the items the once over. Damaged goods were put to one side and the perpetrator of the fault had to come down and fix it. Once or twice a week a lady tape edger came down and re edged them, often this was the one who had the most errors for the week. Once quality checked the mattresses were bagged. Until 1967 the bag was paper, but after that the bags were plastic, which certainly made identification of what was inside a lot easier.

The divans didn't come down a chute but by lift and they were bagged by the upholsters themselves. They were very self assured men and scorned the need for quality checking. Before being stored they had bags of legs stapled to their bottom. The drilling and fixing of casters was done by boys, who were regarded as only sub-human by the others. The overall command of this section was a West Indian called Des. A man worth cultivating was our Des as he was a very good tailor and made up coats and waistcoats for the discerning using the better quality ticking, which we could buy at a discount.

There were many loaders, but the three who stand out in my mind were two Italians, only one of whom, Basil, spoke English with any degree of fluency albeit so heavily accented he might as well have been speaking Italian. The 'Eyties' were extremely hard workers and were out for any overtime going. The other was a West African called Eddie. He looked like a gorilla and seemed to have the intelligence of one, which was interesting as he claimed to be a university student who had got stuck in England after running out of money.

The next floor up held the mattress shop. It was quite a happy and bustling place with either the radio on full blast or one or two of the workers singing songs as they worked. In the shop were the mattress makers who turned spring units with their coir mats attached, cotton or wool mix felts, mattress covers and borders into a complete whole. There were many interesting characters in the mattress shop. One, who was a rather quiet guy, was Tom. He and I shared a mutual interest in medieval history. Whereas I was into the 100 Years War, he preferred the War of the Roses. He and I went up town one day on leave to go to a shop that sold white metal model soldiers. Tom used to paint them with great skill and had a national reputation for his knowledge of heraldry. On several occasions I had to go down into the shop with a message for him to call Professor This or Doctor That at the Oxbridge University as they needed him to tell them what would have been on Earl Thingies shield or jurpon at the Battle of Whatever.

The covers were attached to the springs using compressed air hog ring guns. The lady tape edgers used heavy industrial sewing machines angled on a stand that ran on a track. They kneaded and manoeuvred the mattresses as they went round so that they could machine a tape over the edge of the mattress and the border. Once complete they went down the shute to the checkers below.

The foreman was Fred Paine, who was a tall cadaver of a man. A very amusing guy to be with, Fred had been told by his doctor to give up smoking cigarettes, so he smoked thin cigars instead. His under foreman, Ron Dowling, used to refer to them as 'coffin nails' and I would not be surprised to hear that that was what they proved to be for poor old Fred.

On the floor above were offices, including originally the Bedding Office. This was overseen in my early days by Robert Sinclair (?), known behind his back as 'Uncle Bob'. I am sure he was very good at his job as he was later made a director, but we saw little of him as he spent a lot of time with buyers, suppliers and attending Lodge lunches. Uncle Bob was an ardent smoker; if he didn't have a pipe or cigarette in his mouth, he was voraciously munching peppermints. Next came the engineering staff and then at the rear were the director's offices. During my time there were three of the family as directors, Mr Alan, Mr Roger (whose great love in life was yachts) and Mr Ewart. After the Bedding Office moved, the engineer shop may have taken over the space to be near their office staff, manager and design.

Going back to the stable wing, the floor above had the divan makers, who were regarded as the factory's hard men. The upholsterers used a magnetic hammer and blued tacks. They would take a mouthful of tacks and then, whilst bending over the divan and pulling the cover over tight, spit out a tack, which was caught on the face of the tack hammer, before being hammered home into the divan's wooden frame. Their foreman was Arthur Ford who would defend his workers to management with a vehemence one would normally expect to get only from a parent, but God help the upholsterer who had caused him this grief when Arthur got back to the shop. Arthur's greatest fear, however, was one of his blue tongued 'boys' swallowing a tack or two, which happened about twice a year.

On the same level in the middle building was the sewing machine shop, in my early days run by Ivy and later by a lady I got on very well with called Hetty. Any young male going in there went in fear of his life from the women whose main pleasure in life, apart from singing along with the radio, was giving verbal sexual harassment to any young male who came within earshot and if the forewoman wasn't around something more physical. There was a pert woman there in her mid 20s. Her husband was a fence. Myer's staff used to watch the TV programme Police Five each weekend in order to see what she would have for sale on the Monday!

Above the sewing machine shop was Fred the cutter who used electric saws to cut out the divan and mattress covers in huge blocks. The apprentice helped lay the ticking, carry the rolls and saw the borders. Fred was a crusty old man with a vulgar sense of humour that masked a heart of gold.

Back over the stable wing were the teams that put the coir mats on the mattresses and the Hessian on the divans. The foreman was Ted who had a chest so hairy that strands poked over the collar of his shirt. The divan boys were the more interesting as, whenever they had a dispute amongst themselves, they would settle it in a duel. Each participant would stand at an end of the shop and 'shoot' at the other with their air tack gun. These duels were very popular amongst the other staff and whenever there was to be one word soon spread and the shop would be packed with spectators. The only ones who never seemed to know what was going on were the foremen and the senior managers.

Another staff member I remember was Jack Wiltshire. Despite his name he did not come from Wiltshire, but rather Somerset. A great lover of cider, he would regale Geoff and I, fellow cider drinkers, of tales of Somerset farmers using dead sheep and foxes to give their scrumpy more 'body'. He may have overseen the unloaders. Of that team I remember their first leading hand, Johnny Kettle, and Michael Brady: a great guy. They had a teamster called Bob who was a professional wrestler on the weekends. He sometimes appeared on TV. If he was to appear we used to pump him to tell us who was booked to win the matches that week.

For about a year of my time the factory had a fire bug. The fires inevitably started at lunch time. As office staff, the lads in the Bedding and Buying Offices were expected to run through the factory checking that all the fire doors were closed and that the foremen and women had got their staff out. Being young and foolish, having found the fire, we fought it, aided and abetted by the older men, who fed us extinguishers and fire hoses. The first couple of times it was fun (except for the soaking from the sprinklers), but eventually we got tired of the game, especially as the noxious fumes from the burning foam was very hard on the lungs. In fact, we started lunch time patrolling of the mattress storage areas where the fires started in order to catch the fire bug. He got caught in the end and proved to be a disgruntled youth who felt he had been hard done by over something petty. I can't remember how he got caught, it certainly wasn't by Geoff and I on patrol, which is just as well, as we may have been tempted to rough handle him.

Socially it was a good firm to work for. Christmas was a very special time. The company always put on a formal do at Derry & Toms. Three bands, one a dance band, one a traditional jazz band and the third a pop band, and more food that you could ever eat. What surprised my wife was that when you entered the Directors and their wives were there to greet you. The women all got a kiss from both the Directors and their wives and the men a handshake from the Directors and a kiss from their wives.

For a small cost one could also enjoy a Christmas lunch in the canteen. One had to bring one's own booze and if Geoff Wright reads this, I am sure he wouldn't want me to mention the Coate's Triple Vintage Cider I introduced him to one year.

Another Christmas do was the Bedding Manager's office shout for the office staff, foremen and forewomen. Normally held at a pub opposite the Oval, it was supposed to be lunch, but with beer and cider flowing freely it was more than that. I am proud to say that I always managed to get back to the office still capable of standing, if not working, which is more than could be said for some of the lads.

The last working day before the Christmas break was something else. The office staff and foremen, etc saved up each week from November onwards. On the last day, whilst essential work was being done, the more junior staff were sent out for the booze and food. Starting around 11:00 the party went on until stocks ran out. Then, if you had greased up the right people for an invite, you tottered off to the factory workers do which was held in a nearby hall and therefore a decent dancing area. I have no idea what time the workers dos finished as I always left before 20:00 being replete with food and drink and well soaked in atmosphere and cigarette smoke.

Myers was a great company to work for and I have nothing but fond memories of the place, its directors and staff.

Geoff Boxell Wendlewulf Productions Wendlewulf Productions, New Zealand

Utility Furniture

The Utility Mark
The Utility Mark was used on both furniture and clothing

From the very beginning of the war, materials essential to the making of furniture were controlled as were their prices. In July 1940, timber supplies to the furniture trade were completely withdrawn, although later limited supplies were made available.

From February 1941, 'emergency furniture' was manufactured, much of it from plywood, which was later withdrawn as it was needed for aircraft production. Not until the autumn of 1942 were designs for Utility furniture ready, and displayed to the public. Once the Treasury had agreed that Utility furniture should be exempt from Purchase Tax, it was essential that every piece should be marked with the familiar Utility mark. The catalogue was published on 1 January 1943, and after that, only Utility furniture was manufactured. Utility furniture was built to strict specifications, and was plain but attractive and very well made.

The system worked like this: if you wanted furniture, you obtained an application form from your local Fuel Office. Once filled in, it was submitted to the district Assistance Board, which issued a Permit to Purchase. The Permit had 60 units attached to it. A wardrobe required 8 units, an upright chair, 1 unit. Those who had been bombed and other deserving cases received priority. In the first month of the scheme, 18,500 permits were issued. Newly weds were allowed enough points to furnish two rooms with bare essentials only. People living in bed-sitting rooms could apply for a special 15 unit bed-settee.

Although the regulations were relaxed, and the range of furniture widened, when the war ended, furniture rationing continued in force until June 1948, and the Utility scheme was not ended until January 1952.

Text Source : Imperial War Museum